Soundtrack of this travel story: Havana, ooh na-na, half of my heart is in Havana ooh na-na – Camilla Cabello feat. Strong Plug
Picturesque and dilapidated. Refined and raw. Big city and small town. Havana is best described as a city of opposites, or better yet, a mix of all the above.
As we join the locals in the bustling Havana streets, I feel like taking a picture every other minute. The street scene is one that I have never seen before and the late afternoon sunlight gives a warm glow to the cobble stone streets and walls with peeling paint. I jump aside as a ricketing bici-taxi passes by. The cyclist manoeuvres his way through the narrow street, avoiding old-timers, market sellers with carts on rattling metal wheels and pedestrians like ourselves. Reggaeton blasts from speakers in what from a distance seems to be a garage but turns out to be a gym with fitness machines that we in the West would only find in a park. The concrete walls and ceiling are decorated only by TL lights and the machines squeak as young women and men work out.
A bit further down the road a vegetable and meat market provides another glance in local Cuban life. Bananas and pineapples are neatly lined up on fruit and vegetable stalls, while big chunks of meat are chopped in the stalls next to it. The pricing signs show the offers in moneta nacional (MN/pesos), Cuba’s local currency.
The prices in the mini market at the corner of the street catch us by surprise. It’s definitely not just locals in store and both Cuban currencies are presented here (pesos and the tourist Cuban Convertibles), but prices are high and come down to the same amount for locals and tourists (25 MN is 1 CUC). The products offered in this store, and all other stores we would visit, is interesting to say the least. One shop would have five shelves full of dried pasta, but no pasta sauce. Another would have the sauce, but no pasta. Water? Yes, but only sparkling. An entire shelve of Heineken’s? Yes. TuKola (the alternative local cola to go to due to the scarce Coca-Cola supply)? No.
Now that we’re on the topic of cola, let me share an interesting conversation we had a bar in Havana. Right after we sit down a waitress asks us what we would like to drink. “Mojito, Cuba Libre, Long Island?” “We would like to have a sparkling water and cola.” “No, we don’t have.” ”In that case, we would like some lemonade.” “No, we don’t have non-alcoholic drinks.” Right. We get up and sit down in the next bar. “We would like to have a cola.” “We don’t have. We have Mojito, Cuba Libre…” “Cuba Libre is rum and cola, right?” “Yes.” “Okay, so then if you have Cuba Libre you also have cola.” “No.” Do you already have a frown on your face? Well, I did. After a phone call to I don’t know who, the waiter returned to inform us that yes, in case we wanted a cola we could order an entire bottle of tuKola.
Obviously, later in the day we had no issue at all ordering that Mojito. Rum, mint, lime, sugar, soda water and ice – magic if enjoyed in the sun with good company. Heaven if combined with a wonderful view over the city, and for those tobacco lovers – with a real Cuban cigar.
I’m saying real cigars, because people will try to sell you boxes of famous Cohiba for incredibly low prices and you guessed right – these are in fact high prices for incredibly fake cigars. Although quite knowledgeable travellers we were still tempted by a local tipping us off on a special offer at the cooperativo. She explained to us that once a month – today – the government/tobacco factory offers lower prices so that Cubans can buy cigars. Sceptical (this cannot be true) but curious (she’s not at all pushing us, and if we’re not going to buy them from her, what’s her gain?), we get up from the bench we were sitting some minutes after the woman is out of our sight. Waiting at the traffic light, another woman asks us if we’re going in the direction of the cooperative? “I’m going there, so you can walk with me.” We are quickly ushered into a courtyard through what seems to be a completely random door. Another local looks around as we pass – undoubtedly for police – and then shuts the door. On a table in a corner boxes of cigars are displayed. A man in his thirties starts his sales pitch, rolling the cigar between his hands to show that this is real quality and no pulp is inside. By now, we are certain this is a scam but still curious. We feel completely safe to walk away, but the curiosity of my partner wins and so we buy the smallest box he has. – Yes you guessed it, so much pulp inside that it was even a challenge to light them.
Touts aside, the area around Capitolio is wonderful to walk around. When we visited the Captolio itself was closed for visitors due to reconstruction works, but seeing colourful Buicks, Plymouths and Chevrolets pass by the imposing building is a sight in itself. Opposite the government building colourful crumpled facades scream at me to have their picture taken. Adjacent Parque Central is a fascinating spot for people-watching as tourists look for directions or wait for the hop on hop off bus that rarely arrives in time, and locals have frantic discussions on the same bench on the square each day. Fancy hotels Inglatera and Manzana offer a wonderful view on this spectacle from their rooftop terraces.
Havana is worth at least three days of your time to walk around an explore at your leisure. Discover hidden markets, small side streets, plazas and churches. Try some churros and mani (nuts folded in all white paper cones), enjoy live music on the street and join in for salsa moves in bars. Walk the Paseo de Martí (Prado) through Havana Centro where youngsters showcase their skating tricks – their only spot to practice in town as any other street in Havana is either cobble stones or tarmac with potholes.
Two blocks from the Prado you will find the Museo de la Revolucíon and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. If you only have time (or patience) to visit one museum, make it the Museo de la Revolución. Although the information on display might not be objective (read: propaganda), it offers interesting insight in the Cuban revolution and specifically the lives of guerrillas Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.
During one of our strolls through the Habana Vieja we stumbled upon what must be Havana’s tiniest museum: Museo-Casa de natal José San Martí. The museum is a curiosity in itself and most descriptions are only available in Spanish, but it provides a sense of the importance of this poet, writer and politician in Cuba’s fight for independence against Spain in the 19th century.
The hero status of Martí, Guevara and Cienfuegos literally takes gigantic proportions in Havana Vedado’s Plaza de la Revolucíon. The star-shaped Memorial a José Martí, Havana’s tallest structure, and the famous metal artwork murals of two important guerrillas attached to concrete buildings are surely impressive. The plaza itself is rather ugly though, so take that anticipated picture of the guerrilla silhouettes and then treat yourself on fantastic city views from 109m in the crown of Martí’s memorial. It was only then, from that viewpoint, that I realized what a gigantic city Havana is, stretching out along the sea-line as far as the eyes can see.
The best route from Vieja to Vedado is definitely over the Malécon. The hop on hop off bus will drive you over the boulevard, but you can of course also cruise along the ocean from one side of the city to the other in an old-timer convertible. The Malécon also offers a nice refreshing walk, watching the waves crash against the city walls after a long day of city sightseeing.
Picturesque could be the word if you time your walk perfectly and watch out over the ocean during the golden hour. Dilapidated is the word if you take a look at the facades of the buildings that have been tattered by wind and water and have been in need of a renovation since the 50’s. Raw will fit best when the wild ocean sprays water on the Malécon in such proportions that it makes the boulevard inaccessible.
As I said at the beginning of this story, Havana is best described as a city of opposites. Picturesque and dilapidated. Refined and raw. Big city and small town. That blend makes the city unique, and has led me to fall in love with it.
“Havana, ooh na-na, half of my heart is in Havana ooh na-na.”
Want to figure out if half your heart is in Havana?
Where to stay
We had four days to discover the city and it provided us all the time we needed to discover the city. The easiest way to get around town is by for a visit to Vedado/Plaza de Revolucíon or a day trip to one of the beaches East of Havana.
Our casa particular was close to Plaza Vieja which meant bars and restaurants are just around the corner and Parque Central and Capitolio were just a comfortable 15 minute walk away. I would definitely recommend you to stay in the old part of Havana, as Central Havana is a bit less attractive both in terms of the state of its buildings and the opportunity for a relaxed casual evening stroll. Vedado houses Havana’s university, some lovely restaurants and clubs, and comfortable casas for cheaper prices, but it’s a 40-minute walk to the Old Center and this part of the city will not give you that film decor experience.
In Cuba, there are basically two types of accommodation to book: a state-run hotel or a casa particular. Casa particulares are homestays with Cuban locals and offer basic accommodation (think: lukewarm showers, feeling springs through mattress). It’s the most authentic way to experience Cuba, and I definitely recommend this over a hotel. Unless you’re up for comfort – then spoil yourself and book a room in one of the hotels with amazing rooftop terrace and pool.
To book a casa you can take a look at homestay.com – the website will bring you in direct contact with the casa owner.
Where to find wi-fi & a cocktail with a view
Internet in Cuba itself is not easy to come by though as you need first need to buy yourself an internet card and then find a Wifi-spot. You will very soon find out where you can buy a card as you’re destined to walk passed a line of people waiting front of a Telecom store, but you can also try your luck at the reception of one of the bigger hotels such as the Saratoga. The same goes for wi-fi spots. Although I enjoyed being offline for some time, there was a moment for checking in for the return flight (unfortunately). And why not treat yourself on a cocktail with a view while trying not to get frustrated with the slowest internet you’ve encountered since the 90’s. Tip: the rooftop terraces of Hotel Ambos Mundos and Gran Hotel Manzana.